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If you read restaurant reviews, you know what critics think. If you follow Zagat or sites like Yelp, you know what frequent diners think. And you certainly know what you and your friends think. What's missing? To two food-loving friends chatting over cocktails in Charleston, SC, about a year ago, the answer was obvious: Who do chefs think are the best chefs?
On March 1, those two friends, joined by two other executives, foodies all, published Best Chefs America, their 386-page hardcover registry of the best chefs in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.
The book lists the names and affiliations of exactly 4,650 chefs—196 in New Jersey.
Beginning last summer, after several months of preparation, Best Chefs America conducted 5,150 telephone interviews with chefs around the country, drawing each of them out as to who in their state or part of the state or city they esteemed most highly.
The only way to get into the book was to be recommended often and highly by one's fellow chefs.
"You couldn't buy your way in," says Ben Biddle, BCA's vice president of business development and one of the four principals. The reason? According to Biddle, one of the other four—Charleston entrepreneur Bill Blalock, BCA's chairman and chief executive officer—financed the entire project "out of his own pocket. There were no outside investors, and no sponsors.
"You couldn't call us and say this or that and get in," says Biddle, a 1995 Princeton graduate and former school headmaster who himself conducted almost 1,000 interviews, including about 70 percent of those in New York City, 20 percent of those in New Jersey and the rest on both coasts and New Orleans. "You simply had to impress the chefs in your area enough that they were mentioning you often and highly."
The interviews—typically 15-25 minutes each—produced what Biddle says were about 70,000 "points of information," which were fed into software designed for the project by Cvent, a corporation based in McLean, Virginia, that bills itself as "the global leader in event management software." The software translated the information into point totals, and each state had its own threshold for inclusion based on geography and population.
Note that not all the winners were interviewed. In some cases, the interviewers were unable to get the chef on the phone. ("Some may have thought it was a sales job," Biddle says, "or the interviewer was told by the manager the chef was too busy or whatever.") Every chef who was interviewed was told that being interviewed did not mean they would make the list. Making the list was strictly about being mentioned favorably by other chefs. In the end, Biddle says, "less than half the chefs who made the list also were interviewed."
The germ of the idea sprouted over cocktails early last spring in Charleston between two friends—Blalock, who was in the process of opening a restaurant in town (Stars Rooftop & Grill Room, which opened last September)—and attorney Gabe Joseph, who became BCA's chief operating officer. The fourth member of the executive team, Elizabeth Fishburne, was brought in during the summer and became the marketing coordinator.
To get a grip on who's who in any given area, and compile a short list of "seed names" to begin calling, interviewers did their homework. In New Jersey, for example, they combed New Jersey Monthly's archived online reviews, profiles, reader polls and such, and they did the same with the state's major newspapers, social media sites, food blogs and so on. (None of the publications were notified, Biddle says. Indeed, since BCA was looking at public information, there was no reason to notify anyone.)
None of those reviews, articles, Zagat ratings, etc., had any bearing on which chefs got into the book, Biddle emphasizes. They simply helped interviewers figure out who to begin calling. The only thing that mattered was who chefs recommended when you got them on the phone.
If you could get them on the phone.
Anyone who has ever asked chefs their pet peeves knows that they feel constantly bombarded by people calling them to buy ads, contribute to charity events or pay for some kind of promotion or publicity. The predictable result is they are leery of getting on the phone with people from organizations they never heard of—like, at first, Best Chefs America.
"Chefs were skeptical at first, to say the least," Biddle says.
But the BCA interviewers persevered, and once they got to explain the project to a few chefs, those chefs would suggest others they should talk to, and the project gathered speed.
When I looked at the list of New Jersey's 196 honorees, many names jumped out at me. My first impression was that all the stars were there, all the high-end players, including most of the chefs on our August, 2012 list of the 25 Best Restaurants in the state.
But there were many other familiar names as well—some who made our Top 25 in earlier years, some new to the state, some whose places have been popular for many years, a couple known more for their business acumen or community spirit than for the flat-out specialness of their food, and one or two whose restaurants have recently or not so recently closed.
Also among the anointed 196 were many names I didn't recognize at all. In some cases I'd been to their restaurants. In others, I knew of the restaurant but had not eaten there. In yet others, I hadn't even heard of the place.
New Jersey is thought of as a small state, but its dining scene is actually pretty big. California has the most chefs in the BCA book. New York is second. Dense, congested New Jersey—teeming with life from one end to the other, even in the less populous South—ranks sixth in number of BCA chefs.
Still, 196 stuck in my brain. Is it perhaps a tad high? A little lenient? Is this not as exclusive a club as one might want on which to slap the label "Best"?
I put the question to Biddle, who answered in general, not specifically about New Jersey.
"There are more exclusive awards," he acknowledged. "But this is about the chefs themselves, and given what's happened in dining the last 10 to 15 years, the numbers are not hard to believe. It's a little daunting to imagine that there are that many [deserving honorees], but it's actually very few relative to how many chefs are practicing."
In terms of New Jersey, he continued, "There were chefs at big name restaurants, but a chef at a no-name restaurant mentioned five times can be equally significant" in point score. BCA did not set a random cutoff point for inclusion, but looked for "natural cutoffs" where scores drop off significantly. He said that Jersey scores dropped off after the first 196, "but you couldn't cut off before that."
I can't comment on that, but I do think the honor of making the grade would be more meaningful if BCA had done what chefs routinely do—reduce the sauce, skimming the fat, evaporating the water, concentrating the most flavorful parts.
Still, the enterprise overall strikes me as positive and well-intentioned. I know from my own conversations with chefs that they value the good opinion of their fellows more than any other.
But I do have reservations, no pun intended. First, chefs work incredibly hard, on their feet 12-14 hours a day, often six days a week. They don't get to eat out that often, and when they do they tend to go to restaurants owned by their friends and frequented by other friends.
For many, their only opportunity to eat out is on the usually one day a week their restaurant is closed, often a Monday. And their choice of restaurants on a Monday is therefore limited. When they eat after a shift is over, on any day, very often it's near or after midnight and, again, many places they have heard good things about and would like to try are not open.
Of course, at a certain level of seniority, reputation and especially ownership, executive chefs are freed from the daily grind on the line. They expedite—checking finished orders at the pass-through before the wait staff brings them to the tables. More important, they may not have to be in the restaurant virtually every hour of every day it is open. So they do have a chance to get around. It's hard to say how many lead such privileged lives.
And getting back to the issue of loyalty, never forget that a restaurant staff in the thick of service on a busy night is not unlike a platoon of soldiers under heavy fire, hanging in, watching each other's backs (stabbing certain backs in some cases, yes). But chefs emerge from such trials battle-tested, and tend to remain semper fi to those who fought with them, especially those who showed them the ropes, gave them a break, a chance to make their way into the rarefied ranks of executive chef, owner and celebrity.
Bear that in mind when you peruse this list of NJ's 196, or any of the 4,650. (The NJ list is below, in no order that I can discern. That's how it came from BCA. My colleague Rosie Saferstein named a number of well-known honorees here.)
Now, if you're wondering what the 4,650 chefs who made the cut get, the answer is nothing.
Well, almost nothing. They do get one free Best Chefs America window decal. Additional decals are $10 each. The price of the book is $75 for everybody, even the honorees, who can order an aluminum and acrylic plaque for $125, an iron-on rayon patch for $25 or a book plus plaque for $175 (a $25 savings!). Free shipping on everything, BTW.
Charging the honorees, isn't that kind of…Scroogish?
"Without that it wouldn't work," Biddle said, speaking of the economics of the venture.
CEO Blalock also weighed in on this touchy subject.
"The most important thing the chefs get is the ability to use the Best Chefs honor in their advertising, thereby increasing their customers," he wrote in an email. "I would only add that chefs also get a commitment from BCA to promote them—their distinction—aggressively."
The BCA team has little time to bask in what Biddle calls "the fantastic reaction so far among chefs." It's almost time to gear up for the 2014 edition.
"This year we will balance phone interviews with email interviews," Biddle said. "Email will be more efficient, but it wouldn't have worked last year because the chefs wouldn't have known who we were."
BCA might still face a climb. At last weekend's New Jersey Wine and Food Festival at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, dozens of top chefs mingled.
"It's always nice to be recognized by our peers," said one chef who is in the book but was not interviewed by BCA. "But in terms of speaking with other chefs, [the book] hasn't seemed to be a topic of conversation. At the festival, it wasn't mentioned at all, so I'm not sure it's on anyone's radar."
|Best Chefs America: New Jersey|
|Stephen||Schwartzinger||Mattar's Bistr||Allamuchy To|
|Guiseppe||Biancalana||Café 2825||Atlantic City|
|Frank||Dougherty||Dock's Oyster||Atlantic City|
|Kevin||Kelly||Steve & Cooki||Margate|
|Fernando||Masci||Il Mulino New||Atlantic City|
|Sergio||Soto||Gallagher's St||Atlantic City|
|Vincent||Fanari||Dream Cuisin||Cherry Hill|
|Fred||Kellermann||Elements Café||Haddon Heigh|
|Justin||Kunkel||Kunkel's Seaf||Haddon Heigh|
|Matthew||McElmoyl||Oliver a bistro||Bordentown|
|John||Pilarz||Anthony's Cre||Haddon Heigh|
|Marianne||Powell||A Little Café||Camden|
|Robin||Winzinger||Robin's Nest||Mount Holly|
|Anthony||Bucco||The Ryland In||Whitehouse S|
|Chris||Connors||Anton's at the||Lambertville|
|Matt||McPherson||Matt's Red Ro||Flemington|
|Ron||Caudill||Raven and th||Fair Haven|
|Joseph||Cetrulo||Stella Marina||Asbury Park|
|Nicholas||Harary||Restaurant Ni||Red Bank|
|Matthew||Higgins||La Cipollina Ri||Freehold|
|Brian||Imbriale||The Wine Bar||Atlantic Highl|
|Brian||Katz||10th Ave Burr||Belmar|
|Michael||Krikorian||Copper Canyo||Atlantic Highl|
|Steffan||Manno||Giamano's Ris||Bradley Beach|
|John||Panebianco||Brando's Citi||Asbury Park|
|Joe||Pisacreta||Il Giardinello||Asbury Park|
|Alex||Rogers||The Inlet Café||Highlands|
|Joe||Romanowski||Bay Ave Tratt||Highlands|
|Marilyn||Schlossbach||Langosta Lou||Asbury Park|
|Nicholas||Wilkins||Restaurant Ni||Red Bank|
|Matthew||Zappoli||Tre Amici||Long Branch|
|Peter||Angelakos||Bacari Grill||Washington T|
|Hans||Egg||The Saddle Ri||Saddle River|
|Matthew||Gavzie||MK Valencia||Ridgefield Par|
|John||Halligan||The Park Stea||Park Ridge|
|John||Marsano||The Brick Hou||Wyckoff|
|Fred||Mortati||A Mano Pizza||Ridgewood|
|Christine||Nunn||Picnic, The Re||Fair Lawn|
|Carlo||Orlando||A Mano Pizza||Ridgewood|
|Adam||Weiss||Esty Street||Park Ridge|
|Mattias||Gustafsson||Madame Clau||Jersey City|
|Archie||Mejia||Sabor Latin Bi||North Bergen|
|Chris||Siversen||Maritime Parc||Jersey City|
|Bill||Spitz||Bistro La Sour||Jersey City|
|Ken||Trickilo||Liberty House||Jersey City|
|Wally||Weaver||3 Forty Grill||Hoboken|
|David||Drake||Alice's Restau||Lake Hopatco|
|Jeffrey||Orel||Rod's Steak &||Morristown|
|John||Schaefer||Tabor Road T||Morris Plains|
|J.R.||Belt||Stage Left||New Brunswic|
|Andrea||DiMeglio||Luca's Ristora||North Brunsw|
|Brian||Karluk||Steakhouse 8||New Brunswic|
|Bruce||Lefebvre||The Frog and||New Brunswic|
|Ira||Siegel||Just||Old Bridge To|
|Alex||Stotler||Due Mari||New Brunswic|
|Mitchell||Altholz||The Manor||West Orange|
|Humberto||Campos Jr.||Restaurant Lo||Maplewood|
|Michael||Carrino||Pig & Prince||Montclair|
|Francesco||Palmieri||The Orange S||Bloomfield|
|Juan Andres||Placencia||Costanera Res||Montclair|
|Louis||Seger||Lu Nello||Cedar Grove|
|Heinrich K.||Aichem||Black Forest I||Stanhope|
|Jose||Velez||Toscania Tratt||Little Falls|
|Kristopher||Greene||Atlantic Bar &||Seaside Park|
|Artie||Keenan||Bay Head Yac||Bay Head|
|Manuel||Perez||The Peacock I||Princeton|
|Bobby||Trigg||The Ferry Hou||Princeton|
|Edgar||Urias||Blue Point Gri||Princeton|
|Filippo||Russo||Da Filippo's Ri||Somerville|
|John||Tocci||Water & Wine||Watchung|
|Kara||Decker||A Toute Heur||Cranford|
|C.J.||Reycraft Jr.||Chez Catherin||Westfield|
|Frank||Rizzo||The Italian Pa||Cranford|
|Carl||Messick||Peter Shields I||Cape May|
|Anthony||Micari||The Ebbitt Ro||Cape May|
|Claude||Pottier||Claude's Rest||North Wildwo|